Task Force to Examine Alleged Improper Politicking

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is creating a task force to examine allegations that White House or Justice Department officials violated a federal law that insulates government employees from partisan politics.

Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch said yesterday that staffers from a unit in his office that enforces the Hatch Act will form the core of a wider group set to examine whether White House officials improperly used federal resources for partisan purposes, improperly conducted partisan political business on federal time or tried to coerce federal employees into taking partisan political actions.

The inquiry will be the second into the actions of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and White House political aide Karl Rove. Democratic-led committees in Congress are examining similar questions.

The Special Counsel unit also will look into complaints from former U.S. attorney David C. Iglesias that he was fired by Gonzales and other top Justice Department aides for failing to pursue politically motivated prosecutions, and that he was improperly penalized for serving as a Navy Reserve captain, which took him away from his office periodically.

Bloch said he has not yet requested any information from the White House or the Justice Department but wants the probe to move swiftly. His office, an independent federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, has legal authority to request documents and e-mails, as well as to issue subpoenas. If his office finds wrongdoing, it has the power to order those involved fired.

"We have had cooperation from the White House in the past," Bloch said. White House spokesmen said the office has not yet contacted them, and reiterated that its officials' political activities were appropriate.

The 68-year-old Hatch Act is designed to ensure that federal resources are not expended on behalf of a political party or cause. But White House officials tasked with political responsibilities are not governed as strictly by its provisions as career civil servants.

Bloch's office initially focused on evidence developed by the General Services Administration's inspector general that a Rove aide, J. Scott Jennings, gave a presentation in January on the 2008 election to a few dozen senior political appointees at that agency. The session included lists of the top 20 Democratic "House Targets," or seats that Republicans want to recapture, as well as 36 House Republicans on priority lists for reelection.

After Jennings finished speaking, according to statements by a half dozen witnesses, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked her colleagues how they could use GSA projects to help the Republican candidates -- a request that several have said made them uncomfortable. Jennings replied, in front of the group, that the topic should be discussed "offline," according to the witnesses.

Bloch said that on the basis of information his office already has received, "it seems reasonable to assume that there might have been other presentations" of a similar nature by the White House at other federal agencies.

He said his office plans to "look to the intent of the person who presents information" as well as the audience, and whether those who heard the information regarded the briefings as merely informative or a call for action.

Bloch, a former deputy director and counsel to the Justice Department's Task Force for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is a controversial figure. Before coming to Washington, he was a Republican precinct committeeman in Kansas and a lawyer in private practice who represented companies, governments and individuals in lawsuits brought by whistle-blowers.

Since Bloch took office, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have criticized his personnel practices. Bloch's conclusion that he lacks authority to intervene in cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation has sparked protests from gay and lesbian groups.

Bloch also attracted criticism when, in an office reorganization, he removed a supervisory layer above the office's Hatch Act unit, putting it under more direct control by a senior political appointee. That decision provoked a January 2005 protest from the Senior Executives Association, which represents senior, career federal appointees.

In a January decision on another Hatch Act controversy, Bloch decided not to seek sanctions against NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin for telling a Houston Rotary Club in March 2006 that "the space program has had no better friends in its entire existence than [then-Rep.] Tom DeLay. He's still with us, and we need to keep him there."

Bloch concluded that Griffin "should have exercised better judgment" but decided to issue only a warning letter to Griffin.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this article.

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